Effort to reduce corrections costs must be kept in perspective

The state has an obligation to provide the basic needs for inmates.


The looming cuts to state government -- necessitated by the nearly $5 billion shortfall in revenue (tax collections) -- has forced public officials to do the equivalent of going through couch cushions for spare change.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Those nickels and dimes (metaphorically speaking) add up and will help bridge the gap in funding, which helps keep state government providing the services taxpayers need and expect.

But state officials can't be so driven to find savings that they lose perspective on the role and obligations of state government.

Take, for example, the work done by the Department of Corrections and at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. When someone in Washington commits a crime and is sentenced to prison the state has a responsibility to properly care for that person. This means providing the inmate, at a minimum, the basics -- food, shelter, medical care and proper hygiene.

State Rep Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe (also home to a prison), is pushing to reduce the use of tax dollars to buy soap, toothpaste, aspirin and other personal goods for indigent inmates in state prisons.

The Everett Herald newspaper reported Pearson testified to the House Committee on Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness that subsidizing those purchases costs the state hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

The past fiscal year, the state paid $443,000 of the cost of such supplies and inmates paid $150,000, according to The Associated Press.

Department Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail said legal rulings make clear states must provide personal hygiene products for those they lock up whether those inmates can pay or not.

In addition, he said, making over-the-counter medications available for them as well is cheaper than the cost of sending them to an infirmary for an appointment with a doctor.

Pearson counters by citing figures showing inmates have taken advantage of the system to pile up debts when they are not actually indigent.

Pearson is probably correct. Frankly, it's hardly a shock that inmates -- convicted felons -- would take advantage of the system.

Vail said he would look into the matter, and we have no doubt he will. Saving even a small amount of money helps his department, which continues to face budget cuts.

But the effort to reduce ripping off soap and toothpaste can't be so elaborate (or ridiculous) that it costs taxpayers more than it saves.

The reality is it costs over $30,000 a year to incarcerate an inmate in Washington state. Not letting them wash, brush their teeth or take aspirin isn't going to change that figure much.

Keeping inmates behind bars, which means providing for their basic needs, is a necessary cost of state government.


rao 2 years, 11 months ago

If politicians want to get tough on crime to get elected then they need to stay in the ball game after they are elected and be part of a solution to win the game. basics -- food, shelter, medical care and proper hygiene is not unreasonable. After all they can’t get a job that pays minimum wage. If they could there would be no problem. It is very difficult to get a prison paid job while incarcerated, and if they do find a paying job, (most jobs don’t pay) it is 20 to 30 dollars a month. Remember about 30 to 35 percent of money in an inmate’s account is confiscated by the state to be used toward their incarceration. Mr. Pearson counters by citing figures showing inmates have taken advantage of the system to pile up debts when they are not actually indigent, is incorrect. If they do then the state needs to fix their accounting department. Not letting inmates wash, brush their teeth or take aspirin is not a solution to this problem and can cause more serious problems. If Mr. Pearson wants to save money he and his other politicians should get back in the game and consider other avenues to incarceration and warehousing people.


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